It is on the way back from the attic, a cardboard box of books in her arms, that E notices the large bump in the wall of the landing. Plain as day – a convex bulge the diameter of a desk globe and only a few feet from the baseboards. E is compelled to forget her chore. She puts the box down on the first step and sits rapt, cross-legged in front of the protrusion. She runs her hands over it. In color it’s the same somber burgundy as the rest of the wall but the bump has a grainy, chalky feel while the other part of the wall is smooth. Her fingertips find a long seam that traverses from top to bottom, bisecting the hump.
“Here is the beginning,” she thinks. In the dining room her mother is ironing with the phone to her ear.
“We’re fine on our own. It’s too late for you to come back. There’s too much distance.” While she talks the iron smooths deep creases into the dinner napkins. E can feel her mother’s oblique watchfulness as she passes the open door. With the screwdriver from the super’s toolbox E softly taps the snowy bank of plaster under the burgundy paint until larger and larger flakes begin to fall, leaving a fine dusting on her wrists and knees. E becomes so engrossed in the work of tapping and chiseling with the screwdriver that when she looks up most of the plaster is gone. Wiping away what is left with her hands, she discovers the oculus. Through this convex window she can see a town. The main street is crowded and unpaved, lined with shops and offices with wide wooden porches and tall shade trees that wave their branches in the steady breeze. The townspeople are uniformly tall and rush headlong about their errands. They dart ineffectually up and down the main street only to suddenly disappear into dark alleyways.
Her mother is in the kitchen now. E can hear cat food rattling in the vacuum’s hollow belly but on the landing there is an underwater quiet that pulls a heavy velvet curtain across the commotion in the other room. If she stares hard into the oculus, strains her eyes until they blur, she can hear the frantic cries of commute and commerce. Each syllable is familiar but the meaning is obscured as if borne away on radio waves. If she went out on the fire escape maybe – but leaning out as far as she dares the understanding is still out of reach. E descends two more flights, closes her eyes, listens, moves down one more. She drops the last ladder with a clang and while it reverberates on the sidewalk, sets off toward the town. She does not turn around to see her mother’s thin, bent figure at the oculus, handkerchief at her mouth.
E walks down the dusty main street. The town is quiet and all the shop windows are dark and empty. The townspeople converge upon her and quickly sweep by with painted, staring eyes. They are only balloons, pushed and pulled by the breeze. They brush against her as they drift past. She walks until the whispery drag of the balloons in the dirt cedes to the neon hum of a gas station’s lights. Behind her the last townsperson is wrapped around a cactus, hissing and half-deflated.
At a rusted pump an old woman fills a turquoise pick-up. She is short and sturdy as a tree trunk with a face like red clay, wrinkled by the same whorls and ebb lines the wind has made in the earth under her feet. The old woman wears an oversized cowboy hat that falls over her eyes as she leans across the seat to open the passenger door. E climbs in and the old woman turns the radio dial with knotted fingers. Lying under and between the songs is a threatening static that subsides as they near a row of black-limbed trees with thrusting branches. The old woman’s crooked hands cross on the steering wheel, left over right and now they are turning into the trees, toward the house at the end of the road. Above, children hang from the thorny branches by their hinged arms. In each tree there are five or more children. They swing or crouch, holding their sharp knees and watching the truck pass.
The old woman’s son stands in the open doorway of the house. When he sees the truck he runs inside and out the back to wash the table. E sits in the chair under a black thorn tree. The old woman lights a long pipe and narrows her eyes at the horizon as her son brings them plates of food. He sets the silverware gently on either side of the plate. He pours tea into three tin cups and returns them to their saucers. Inside the house a song that all children know is playing on the radio. The chorus circles around and around like ducks paddling. The old woman and her son turn their heads and listen with closed eyes.
“I was born here, in that room,” says the son, pointing into the dark doorway of the one room house. “And all the land around here is ours, though we only go East and not too far. My uncle stays here with his work. In all my life he has never left this house.” He gestures behind him.
E sees a man with a ponytail leaning against the side of the house, his eyes are shaded by a dust-colored baseball cap. The man might be looking at them or just past their faces. On his stooped shoulders hangs a faded black t-shirt with a picture of a swirling, nebulous milky way. In the pocket of his dirty jeans is a radio transmitter with a swaying length of antennae.
“If he ever woke up we’d go out like a light,” says the old woman’s son. E crosses her fork and knife over the plate. Her tongue burns and she wonders if this is the tea. Black spiders from the overhanging tree begin to drop onto the table, two and three at a time. They land with soft clicks. Their hinged legs pause and they sit groggily before skittering across the plates. The old woman pushes back her chair abruptly while the son sweeps them from the table with an old broom. He is shaking his head and laughing in a defeated way. The sound of it is like rain on water.
E walks into the shade at the side of the house and leans beside the sleeping uncle. His eyes are open but his breath comes in a deep, slow rhythm. He turns and slides along the wall and past the house, limp as a ragfish.
“What are you waiting for?” asks E.
“A ride,” he says.
“What about your work, your obligation?” E asks and climbs into the driver’s seat of the turquoise truck.
“We have no obligations we haven’t accepted ourselves,” he says. “ It can’t be dictated by human reasoning. Wouldn’t you say there’s a distinction between charity and duty?” The stoop shouldered uncle sits in the passenger seat. He fiddles with the knobs on the radio transmitter.
“I think people should keep their promises. There is a cost to allowing others to depend on you,” E says. Her hands are burning on the hot steering wheel.
“I don’t know how much I owe,” says the uncle,” but I feel like I’m done paying.” He pulls another ten feet of antennae from the transmitter and sticks it out the window. A new song reaches them faintly; it sounds slow, like a dirge. She turns the truck’s key and watches the small house in the side mirror as they climb the red hills. The old woman and her son with the beautiful laugh stand in the yard, their arms raised. In the black thorn branches the children hang from their knees and grab at the antennae as they pass. The truck rolls down a red hill and up another and then the mirror is empty. On the seat beside her there is only the radio transmitter. Now the passenger door is open and knocking against its frame. E stops the truck and slams the door with all her weight. There is no one but the voice on the radio.
Camille Hugret-Getzik lives with her husband on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mosaic, The Eunoia Review and Barnstorm. In 2011 she received her MFA from San Diego State University and is currently at work on a short-story collection and a novel. During Washington’s long rainy seasons she enjoys knitting scarves, drinking Merlot and decorating with driftwood.